Cat Tien national park, covering an area of about 720 km2, is one of Vietnam’s largest and, concerning its ecological value, most remarkable national parks. In spite of being situated within the general vicinity of Saigon, it does not receive many visitors – judging always comparatively to the massive tourist-throngs other notable parts of this country do receive.
Thus, being, myself, ready to depart from Saigon, starting my way northwards exploring this great country, and lusting for some peace after my time in this chaotic city, I chose Cat Tien National Park to be my first destination. And that fair morning, off I set astride my new motorbike.
The way to the park runs through Bien Hoa city, then Dian Giay, and finally northwards towards Tan Phu, wherefrom, taking a small country road to the left, it leads to the park’s entrance after a few kilometers. The entire trip is about 150 km long and the greatest part of it is consumed only for leaving the immense, heavily jammed metropolitan area of Saigon.
When by early afternoon, I had made it there, I was requested to pay a 50.000 VND entrance fee, plus 15.000 VND per night for parking my bike, before embarking onto a small, carious wooden boat, which was to carry me across the short distance to the opposite bank of Dong Nai river, where the park lies.
One may also quite easily sneak into the park, as there is at least one unguarded bridge I noted some 10 km downstreams near Ta Lai village, and even swimming or paddling on a log across is not an impossibility at all during the less rainy months of the year. Sneaking oneself into the park, however, would require sleeping somewhere remotely into the forest and assiduously avoid any encounter with anybody. It may be quite tricky, but, certainly, if I was ever going to visit this park again, I’d go for it. And that’s so because of the attitude of the park’s staff and management, which I found it not to be that very honest.
There are quite some accommodation options available inside the park. Although I did not particularly inquire for the price, I believe it to be quite expensive, as almost everybody I happened to talk to there, had chosen to stay outside the park, across the river, and rather pay the entrance fee anew every day to come into the park. The good thing is that they permit camping at a grassy field adjacent to the park headquarters for 50.000 VND per night.
So, soon after I entered the park, I had my tent pitched at that field where I spent idly the rest of my day. I was initially worried that it’d be too warm in the tent during the night, but, after all, the temperature turned out to be just perfect. And so perfectly balmy was my sleep that night.
I was suddenly knocked up in the very advent of daybreak by the loud cries of some gibbons that happened to be nearby, coupled by the morning songs of the various melodic birds which were trying, but with mere results, to compete the stentorian apes. It was indeed an exquisite morning! I had my breakfast enjoying the placidity of the surroundings, and I was soon ready to start exploring this magical forest.
My plan for the day was to rent a bicycle and ride to the crocodile lake, one of the worthiest attractions of this park. Upon enquiring relevantly at the headquarters, though, I was struck with surprise and irritation. They did not only ask me for 150.000 VND to rent a bicycle – which is quite outrageous considering I was renting my motorbike for 30.000 VND -, but they also asked me for an additional fee of 140.000 VND to visit the lake! A thing that made wonder of whether I had paid the park fee for to only come to the headquarters and be asked for more money.
Needless to say, I refused to yield. That doesn’t mean I gave up my intention to come to the lake though. I rather formulated instantly an alternative plan. But that needed to be queued up for some hours… For the moment, I’d rather go and explore the forest nearby, which thing they also told me that I need a guide to do. But I ignored them.
That forest was of an absolutely unique and outstanding beauty! I have been in countless forests all around the continents, however I had never beheld something similar to this before. Hiking through it, I virtually felt like being in some spellbound woods taken out from some ancient fairy-tale or an epic fantasy-film. It is indeed a very ancient forest, probably one of the very few primary forests remaining in Vietnam, having survived human expansion and napalm-bombardments. It is dominated by bamboo, various species of Dipterocarpaceae, lofty Afzeliae Xylocarpae, and, what is most impressive, some centuries-old , enormous Tetrameles Nudiflorae with their gigantic, glossy, often hollow trunks resembling castles.
The fauna of the forest is also abundant. There are various large mammals inhabiting it, as primates, deers, gaurs and bears. As I was wandering around in the daytime though, I chanced to spot no such. However, quite satisfyingly, I saw many peculiar insects, smaller and larger lizards and snakes of various kinds, lots of curious birds and literally thousands of butterflies swarming through the forest in a similar fashion people do through the streets of a major city.
Another pleasant day had passed away, the night was at its climax, the mosquitos in their rush hour, and me awaken outside my tent, meeting my two new friends I met the evening before, who showed eagerness to join me in my night excursion to the crocodile lake. We could not rent bicycles, so we were to walk the 14 km distance thither.
The time was 2.30 am when we lit our torches and started ambling on our long way. We kept a keen eye for spotting animals along the way, but, possibly due to the the high noise three of us were raising, had no great fortune. As of mammals we saw nothing but a badger. However, at times, we heard noises close-by, including the wheezing of what apparently should have been a hiding boar.
The first 9 km were on dirt-road, and were the ones we’d be cycling, under different conditions, until the beginning of the 5 km trail to the lake. It was nearly 5 am when we finally reached that point. The first, dim dawn-sunlight had appeared in the sky, and we could see a sign warning of permission being required to continue further down the trail and threatening with costly fines if otherwise. Exactly as I was expecting, though, no one was there to control, so we headed further without needing to perform any sneaking action.
The rest of the way ran through a magically buxom forest, manifesting itself to us moment after moment as the daybreak was slowly progressing in its course, till we needed not to make use of torches anymore. The trail itself was actually a cement/stone laid path, which allowed to move rapidly and reach the lake in less than a hour and before sunrise.
There, we first passed through a complex of huts with a small group of people awaken performing various jobs. We just passed through it straightforward, greeting those people casually, so to keep them unsuspicious of us having no permission. It would actually be better to not show ourselves up at all – and the thick morning-fog would be a great aid to do so -, but, walking carefree, we just saw them in front of us quite suddenly, when it was too late. They could not speak English, so they just greeted back without any questions.
We headed down to the lake and spent some time in search of crocodiles by the grassy banks. There is quite a large population, amounting to ca 100 individuals, of rare Siamese Crocodiles dwelling in that lake, and the time we were was the most likely for to have left their underwater premises taking a morning rest on land. However, neither luck nor visibility was our ally that morning. Anyway, even without spotting any crocs, that excursion definitely worth it. We saw quite a good number of pretty, large aquatic birds, and, anyhow, just beholding that majestic landscape was in itself a fantastic experience.
On our way back, as we passed again by those huts, a girl who could speak a bit of English was summoned and asked us to display our tickets. Upon getting informed that we had none, she pleaded us to purchase them there on spot. Upon us further informing her – well… misinforming to be honest – that we carry no money with us, she asked for our names and told us that we must purchase the tickets from the headquarters right away once we are back, obviously calling them right after we left. It would be no point giving her false names, as we were, currently, pretty much the only visitors in the park.
When we finally made it back, a bit before 10 am, me and my two friends, we separated. As I heard from them later that same day, outside the park and about 150 km away from it, they had quite an adventure for those unpaid tickets. They had to argue for two whole hours with the staff and manager in order to be let to go without paying. Me, I don’t know for what reason, much more luckily, I wasn’t asked to pay at all, nor was I bothered in any way. I rather went quite voluntarily to the headquarters and paid the 50.000 for my second night camping – of which I think I’d be neither asked if I was not to go myself – and I soon left the park troublelessly, like nothing ever happened.